If you’re interested in getting involved in ballroom dancing — or any kind of dancing, for that matter — Paula East is definitely a person you should know. Not only is this “dancing dynamo” extensively schooled and experienced in all forms of the dance, her passion and love of her craft immediately radiate from her whenever the sport is the topic of conversation.
Born in Greece and raised in Cambridge, MA, Polyxiene Stravapoulas—now known as Paula East—is a first generation Greek-American. She often visits the land of her ancestors, where she enjoys practicing the language she first spoke, which keeps her fluent in speech, diction, and tradition.
East chose professional dancing and singing as her career at an early age and has performed throughout the states and abroad. She trained at the Boston Conservatory of Music, Berklee College of Music, and Alicia Alonzo School of Ballet before becoming a professional singer, dancer, and choreographer. For a few years, the classically trained East was the headlining singer at the Hotel Roosevelt in New York City, where she performed with and met many entertainers, including Bob Hope, Kate Smith, Mickey Rooney, and Xavier Cugat.
Later, she and husband George Ellison were a popular dance team at the President Hotel in Swan Lake, NY before moving to Cuba, where he went to medical school. Like East, Ellison had been dancing since childhood, so it was natural for them to supplement their income by dancing. They formed an act with a Cuban national—another dancer—and called themeselves Los Tres Ellison. The popular trio, who performed at the famed Tropicana, was described in one published review as “the best American import into Cuba in recent memory…”
The couple lived in Cuba when gangsters, gamblers and glamorous celebrities ruled nightlife in Havana and were there during the Revolution. While dancing in the most famous clubs in Havana, East met many famous people, including George Raft, Marlon Brando, Eartha Kitt, and others who came to Cuba on a regular basis.
After the Ellisons returned to the states, they eventually settled in Macon, where they operated the Danceland Studios for a number of years.
Today, East leads dance classes as instructor at many locations in Central Georgia and can regularly be found at the Macon Health Club, where she offers beginner, intermediate, and advanced Latin and Smooth classes. She also serves as Dance Ambassador for the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon, the largest state sports museum in the nation, where she regularly teaches dance.
A dancer for a lifetime, Paula East appropriately is one of two co-founders of the Greater Macon Chapter of USA Dance (Chapter #6059) and she has served as a board member of the Stars Over Macon Ball that benefits the Hospice of Central Georgia.
In February 2014, she was officially recognized during the annual Induction Ceremony at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame for her years of dedicated service.
Paula East currently is developing a series of dynamic exercise routines that combine isometric fitness training with some Tai Chi movements. Look for this exciting new project to roll out this spring!
1) How did you first get involved in dance?
It wasn’t just dancing that captivated me, but singing, too. I knew since I was a young child that there was nothing more that I wanted than to be an entertainer. From the second grade, when I was asked to perform at school, I would entertain for the enjoyment of other people. I got a lot of joy out of the reaction of my audiences.
My parents, who were from Greece, didn’t believe that working in the entertainment field was a legitimate way to make a living, so I had to entertain people on street corners and in grocery stores to make money to pay for my lessons. I lived two miles from Berklee and walked there from Cambridge in all kinds of weather to make my lessons.
2) Who influenced you most in your career?
Because I started my career at such a young age and since I didn’t have the support of my parents, I had to motivate myself and be self energized whenever I got up to perform. In addition to being self motivated, I studied for a while with an African-American woman, a pianist and singer from Georgia who taught me all the blues and jazz standards. She schooled me on how to copy the phrasing and singing of Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn and other great artists when I was 15 years old.
3) How long have you been in Macon and what brought you here?
Excellent question! I have come to and left Macon three different times, beginning in the 1960s after hopping a train as a teenager when I told my mother I was going to a prom. I had met a dancer in Cambridge who was going to pre-med school at Mercer University and took him up on his invitation to visit for a few days. I thought it would be wonderful to come down to Georgia and see some of the blues singers here. I saw Little Richard for the first time during that trip. I returned to the south when I was studying music at Berklee and learning to become a vocalist. I don’t know what drew me back here so many times.
4) What do you find to be the most challenging thing about teaching dance?
Watching people who have no coordination and barely know how to walk is very challenging to me as a dance instructor. I try to focus on helping them take full advantage of what the body and mind can do. To me, dancing brings out the mind-body-spirit connection, so it’s a joy when my students grow through dance and music, the universal language.
5) If you were not dancing or teaching dance, what would you be doing?
I can’t answer that question because dancing and singing have been my life for almost all of my life. They were just in my genes. I’ve never thought of doing anything else. I was gifted with the ability to dance and sing, but don’t put me near a computer!